My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: gadget

Surface Pro 4 Meets a Soft Synth

A little video about touch screen music software

I have a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for the next few weeks. I don’t think I’m going to keep it, but I may yet switch from my MacBook Air to the Surface Pro 5 when that device comes out, supposedly later this quarter (early 2017). This video is simply a glimpse at how the touch screen works for music, specifically in this case how the Aalto synth, from Madrona Labs, works. Aalto is running here from within Ableton Live. The sound quality is poor because I’m just using my phone for both the video and the audio.

The short version is that the screen is great for this sort of software, something with lots of virtual knobs and patch cords and buttons intended for touchpad/cursor use. Aalto is fine with a keyboard and trackpad, but it’s even better with the touch screen. (Less great was finding an angle that would allow me to play the instrument and yet have the screen fairly visible. This is the best I could manage. I’m not much of a videographer. I annotated the video using iMovie. My iMovie skills are pretty limited, so forgive the junior-grade typography.)

The main thing that happens once you start using a synth like Aalto with a touch screen is that things that aren’t touchable, such as the shape of an envelope, suggest themselves as touchable. Perhaps software will become more touchable as time proceeds, with some features only available on touch screens. As a friend said elsewhere, once some things are touchable, you want everything to be touchable.

Shortly after I posted the video, Randy Jones of Madrona Labs took note of it and said interface adjustments were possible: “Nice. Yes, I could probably do something with those envelope areas.”

In related news, late last year I started this modest subreddit for Surface Pro audio discussion: reddit.com/r/winSurfaceMusic.

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This Week in Sound: CES + Technics +

+ Brian Eno's pricey return to ambient music

A lightly annotated clipping service:

Consumer Products: CES is happening in Las Vegas, where battle lines are being drawn and allegiances formed amid various platforms, with Amazon’s Alexa in a prominent position (zdnet.com).

Godfather Returns: Brian Eno has released a great new ambient album, Reflection, and a quizzically expensive iOS app (brian-eno.net).

DJ Revisionism: And as Jonathan Soble writes in the New York Times, a relaunched Technics turntable is peculiarly detached from its hip-hop legacy (nytimes.com).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 3, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Philip Glass + Buddha Machine 2017 (Updated)

An apparent collaboration is in the works

“Philip Glass + Buddha Machine. Jan 2017.” That single line of news popped up on Philip Glass’ Facebook feed two evenings ago, and simultaneously on the news page of Glass’ website, philipglass.com, and then an hour or so later on Buddha Machine’s own Facebook page.

What it means isn’t exactly clear. The base impression is there’s a forthcoming Buddha Machine featuring sounds from Philip Glass. Then again, it could be something richer still. Monolake, aka Berlin-based musician Robert Henke has, among others, done a full album of Buddha Machine remixes. Perhaps Glass has composed a piece with the Buddha Machine as an automaton collaborator.

Buddha Machine is the work of the duo FM3, which consists of Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian 张荐. The first one was released in 2005. The device is a small looping machine. It contains brief bits of music that play on repeat. Here’s a run through the sounds:

On the first device the only controls were on/off and switching between tracks. Later editions in the Buddha Machine line added the ability to change the pace, and thus the pitch, of the track. This would be one among the many celebrations of Philip Glass’ imminent 80th birthday. He was born on January 31, 1937.

This wouldn’t be the first Buddha Machine collaboration. They worked with Throbbing Gristle to produce the noise box named Gristleism back in 2009:

The third Buddha Machine, released in 2010, featured performances on the guqin string instrument by Wu Na 吳娜. And there was the Buddha Machine Secret Edition, produced for a French spa back in 2007 and 2008. In addition to the spa, there have been five official Buddha Machines. Glass is himself a gregarious composer whose numerous collaborations include work with Aphex Twin, R. Carlos Nakai, Richard Serra, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Simon, and Suzanne Vega.

You can hear the influence of Glass’ minimalism on the Buddha Machine, from the overall core function of looping, to the timbre and tonality of some of the tracks. The very first Buddha Machine’s second track, “Zheng – 箏,” in particular bears resemblance to the mediative arpeggios-as-reverb quality of many Glass compositions:

There’s little if any other information currently circulating, aside from a reply that the folks behind Buddha Machine made to one of the Facebook comments. In regard to certain desired characteristics of the forthcoming Buddha Machine item, they replied: “We have changed factories so I hope the new unit meets your desires.”

While on the topic, at the top of my wishlist for future Buddha Machines is that they are CV-controlled, so that the volume, speed/pitch, and track can be triggered by my modular synthesizer. This video of a hacked Buddha Machine by Leicester, U.K.–based Stu Smith provides a proof of concept:

Here, in turn, is a room full of Buddha Machines, six in all:

This layering of multiple Buddha Machines has made the device a favorite of musicians who engage in generative music, in compositions that change over time as the result of artfully calibrated systems. Among the earliest major proponents of the Buddha Machine was Brian Eno, who reportedly bought numerous of the first edition. Eno today announced this his forthcoming album, Reflection, due out on January 1, 2017, on the Warp label, will also be available as a generative iOS app (more at brian-eno.net) that he developed with Peter Chilvers. Eno’s previous generative music apps, also made with Chilvers, include Bloom and Scape.

More on the Buddha Machine at fm3buddhamachine.com and buddhamachine.bandcamp.com. And, yes, there’s an iOS version.

(Thanks for the alert, Eric Vincent Guilmette and Michelle Milligan.)

Update (2016.12.20): The device is now available for pre-order at bleep.com and boomkat.com. Bleep says, “Set for release on his 80th Birthday, the new machine features variations on piano, organ and voice, and is sure to be possibly the most minimal, yet hypnotic entry on the Buddha machine yet.” Boomkat says, ” brand new Buddha Machine made in collaboration with Philip Glass, released to commemorate his’ 80th Birthday on 31st January 2017. Seven loops of distinctive and hypnotic works by Philip Glass featuring piano, organ & voice. Significantly improved sound quality and built in speaker as well as headphone output.” There appears to be no pitch/speed control on this one.

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I’ll Be Talking About Doorbells in Oakland (Dec. 1)

At the offices of the design studio Futuredraft

I’ll likely mention this again, since today is sort of a busy day for many people, but the meetup.com invitation has gone live for the talk I’m giving on doorbells on December 1 in Oakland. Here’s the description:

You’re visiting someone — a friend, a colleague — and you arrive at their building. You put the tip of one of your fingers up against a tiny button that sits beside the entrance, and you push. Somewhere inside the building a bell resounds. Tied up in that tidy interaction are a host of telling cultural, historical, and technological details about the way machines mediate human interaction.

How long do you wait before ringing again? What does the echo of the bell tell you about the interior space? Is the doorbell paired with a camera? Does the camera make you feel suspect, or at least wish that you’d fixed your hair? Will a disembodied voice inquire about your identity? How long have you been standing there? Did the bell ever actually ring? Had you accidentally let your finger slip? Did you perhaps never really register your presence?

Marc Weidenbaum, a longtime critic of and community organizer in electronic music, will talk about the cultural history of that everyday pushbutton gadget, the doorbell. He will discuss the intercom’s development in Japan, the rise of the domestic surveillance apparatus, the consumer-product soundscape of everyday life — and, ultimately, what lessons the humble, ubiquitous doorbell provides in regard to the Internet of Things, the smart home, and the role of sound in user interfaces.

Marc is the author of the 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. His sonic consultancy has included work on GPS mobile apps and coffee-shop sound design, and he has done music supervision for two films, the documentary The Children Next Door and the science fiction movie Youth. He’s exhibited sound art in galleries in Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Dubai, as well as at the San Jose Museum of Art. December 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of his blog, Disquiet.com, which focuses on the intersection of sound, art, and technology.

The talk will be held at the offices of Futuredraft (futuredraft.com) in Oakland at 304 12th Street Suite 4E. The talk is free, but RSVPing (via that MeetUp URL) would be nice.

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Listening to Yesterday: Bathroom Cues

The absence of sound as consumer-product sound design

Twice a day my mouth turns into a cavernous venue for what could be mistaken for a solo didgeridoo concert. This is when I use my electric toothbrush. It’s battery-charged, and takes close to half a day to get enough power for it to last a few weeks. I know the toothbrush is due for a charge when the light persists in blinking after I’m done brushing. I know I’m done brushing because the room, along with my mouth, goes silent. Previous to that silence, for two minutes straight from start to finish, my mouth reverberates with the sound and sensation of bristles going full speed.

When I first started using the electric toothbrush, after a lifetime with the unplugged sort, I was concerned I’d made a terrible and not inexpensive mistake. Those vibrations are my least favorite part of my thrice-annual dental visit. There’s a quiet ferocity to them, and the hum of the machine is matched by the ticklish tinging where gums meet teeth. After a short time, thankfully, I became comfortable with the brush, and now I rarely travel without it. I came, in fact, to admire the vibrations, or more specifically the use of the vibrations as a design element.

There’s a particularly ingenious aspect to the electric toothbrush’s vibrations. Every 30 seconds there is a lull, not a cesura, just the briefest of pauses. The lull is a signal. It means rotate, like we used to do in volleyball during gym class back in high school. The brush is programmed to match the quadrants of a human mouth: front top, front bottom, back top, back bottom. The lull, a split-second drop in the rotary drone, is a signal to switch quadrants. Kudos to the device’s designers, who opted to use the absence of sound as a cue, rather than adding a beep. The absence of sound is one of the great tools in a sound designer’s toolbox. It’s a difficult choice for a designer to leave something out, rather than to add something.

The lack of a beep in the brushing is matched by that battery alert. It’s risky to have something as important as battery life be gauged simply by a little light. What if you put down the toothbrush quickly after brushing? What if you place it on the counter so the light is turned away from you? What if the bathroom is brightly lit? No matter. This brush would rather you learn the hard way. One cycle back with the archaic “manual” brush is a small price to pay to be trained to keep an eye on that light in regard to your toothbrush’s battery life. The absence of the beep as an alert, for both the quadrant-swapping and the battery notification, feels like a conscious acknowledgement of the utility scenario, of the quiet period when brushing takes place: early in the morning and late in the evening. Those are times when any additional noise is especially unwelcome, in life and in consumer-product design.

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